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“Skateland” is reminiscent of a lot of films at this year’s festival offerings: A disparate group of young adults party and ponder their post-high school existence, finding themselves by getting lost in the revelry. But this one is a cut above, I think, due mostly to a splendid cast of actors who invest their characters with a casual believability.
The biggest name in “Skateland” is Ashley Greene, who’s starred in the “Twilight” movies as Alice Cullen. And she is solid in this, especially during a break-up scene that feels spot on and authentic.
But the real break-out is Shiloh Fernandez as Ritchie Wheeler — “Richie Rich” to all his friends — the lead role, a budding writer wasting away his days working as an assistant manager at a roller rink in the waning days of disco.
I saw Fernandez in a horror/drama called “Deadgirl” a year or two, and he’s been on a lot of TV. I really think he has all the tools to be a star — a good-looking kid with a soulful center and an undeniable screen presence. Whenever he’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him. And this movie does a great job of showing off his appeal.
Ritchie’s a bright young man who can’t quite decide what he wants in life. He enjoys the routine down at Skateland, smoking and drinking beer with his friends in his off hours, but he’s almost magnetically repelled to decisiveness. His kid sister Mary (Haley Ramm) fills out college applications for him that he blows off.
Even Michelle (Greene), his constant companion, has to be the one to make the move to take their friendship in a more romantic direction. It’s not that he lacks guts, just motivation.
The story opens with the return of Michelle’s brother Brent, a Motocross bike racer who’s taken a spill and decided to come home to their small Texas town for awhile. Brent’s the prototypical cool jock who still hangs around with the high school/college age kids, basking in his former glory.
Brent is played by Heath Freeman (who also has a screenwriter credit.) He brings a weighty, doomed quality to Brent’s mischief-making that I adored. Brent knows that he’s fast approaching has-been status, and just wants to enjoy a few more lazy victory laps as the center of attention before he becomes a clock-puncher at the oil rig like his old man.
There’s some recognizable veteran actors in the background, adding seasoning to the mix. Brett Cullen plays Ritchie’s dad, struggling to put the pieces together as his marriage founders. James LeGros adds a few notes of blue-collar dignity in a small role as Michelle and Teddy’s father.
Director Anthony Burns, who co-wrote the script with Brandon and Heath Freeman, shows a real adroitness in handling his actors. I didn’t detect a false note the entire time.
His camera work could use a little more flair, though. I admired his confidence in using extended long takes, allowing his actors to perform even when they’re not talking. But sometimes it sapped the energy from scenes that needed to create more of a dynamic via editing.
The film does tread into some cliché territory — the town bully and his crew wander into scenes looking to rumble, which have an obligatory feel.
And it manages to trip over one of my pet peeves: Setting up a main character as a creative type, and then never showing them working at their craft. We get a couple of shots of Ritchie sitting at his 1980s-era computer tapping away, but no real insight into his life as a writer — which is supposed to be his defining quality.
Still, “Skateland” is a strong directorial debut by Burns, populated with a cast who made me love every minute I spent with them. And Shiloh Fernandez is truly one to watch.